The Problem With ‘Coping Strategies’

It is impossible to put across the idea that it is helpful and useful to use a particular skill or coping strategy without at the same time giving the jinxed message that we ought to be (or need to be) ‘coping’ with whatever difficult situation it is that we are in. Pressure of this sort however is always counterproductive in therapy; pressure of this sort is guaranteed – in other words – to have quite the ‘reverse effect’!

 

This is a ‘therapy dilemma’ that no one ever seems to spot! It’s a ‘dilemma’ because therapy is supposed to be about helping people but selling someone the idea that they need to be ‘coping’ with (or dealing correctly with) whatever it is that’s going on for them is most definitely not helping anyone. This is a jinxed message; it’s like saying that we have to ‘manage life’ correctly and this is the least therapeutic message it is ever possible to give anyone!

 

It takes a little bit of insight to see this of course and insight into psychological matters tends to be rather thin on the ground in our culture. We are all about techniques, not insight! The insight here is that what we really suffer from isn’t the emotional pain that we’re in so much as the attempt to ‘cope’ with it. As soon as we get the idea that we have to cope we’re finished!

 

What on earth do we imagine ‘coping with emotional pain’ means, anyway? Anybody who happens to be suffering from mental or emotional distress is of course going to be trying to cope with it – this is a very strong instinct – and what this actually comes down to is ‘hanging onto some semblance of normal’. We try to pretend (either to ourselves or to others) that everything is still okay; we keep trying to ‘keep up the act’, so to speak. Another way of talking about ‘coping’ would be to say that it essentially involves us trying to impose our will on the situation; we’re trying to get things to be a little bit more ‘the way we think they should be’, in other words. We’re trying to exert control on the way we feel. In psychological terms, we are resisting. We are resisting things being the way that they actually are.

 

This is all very normal and natural and ‘only to be expected’, but at the same time it is completely unhelpful, completely non-therapeutic. What we resist persists’, says Carl Jung and if we can’t see this then we are on the road to nowhere! Resisting is what we do ‘by reflex’ – it’s our automatic response to pain both mental and physical, and ‘going along with the automatic response’ is never going to be the helpful thing to do. Never in a million years is this going to be the helpful thing to do!  On the contrary, it is precisely our automatic defensive reactions to emotional pain that cause us to get stuck in it, as Jung says.

 

We tend to think that ‘coping mechanisms’ aren’t the same as ‘automatic pain-avoidance’ reflexes but they are. They’re just a little bit more methodical, just a little bit more ‘well thought-out’. ‘Coping’ is resisting the way we are; very obviously, if we weren’t resisting the way that we are, then there would be no need for us to be coping! Coping wouldn’t be ‘a thing’ then, it wouldn’t be an issue as to whether we ‘cope’ or ‘don’t cope’.

 

‘Coping’, or ‘the need to cope’, seems to be very important to us when we’re in the thick of things and we feel very much that we can’t cope or mightn’t be able to cope, and this is very natural. Of course we’re desperate to cling on to whatever little bit of control we have, or think we might possibly be able to have, but this doesn’t mean that we should be validating this tenancy in therapy, so to say that you should be trying to cope on the one hand, and that there is a right ‘way to cope’ on the other. As we have said this is a disastrous message to be giving people – it isn’t just ‘not helpful’, is the very opposite of helpful.

 

Really, this is a punishing message. It wouldn’t be a punishing message if it actually worked but it doesn’t work and not only does it not work, it is indicative of a complete lack of understanding that we think that it should! ‘Coping’ is the thing we can’t do and yet at the same time absolutely feel that we need to, and it is this ‘untenable’ position that causes us that very particular form of suffering with which we are all so familiar. If we weren’t caught in the jaws of this conflict then this would be a very different matter – the suffering wouldn’t be the same at all. We’d be ‘free to suffer’ in this case, rather than ‘suffering at the same time as believing that it is very wrong (or very unacceptable) that we should be suffering’…

 

We always think that not coping with our emotional distress is the ‘bad thing’ – we think that ‘not coping’ means freaking out or causing a scene or embarrassing ourselves, or something highly undesirable like that. But ‘not coping’ doesn’t mean ‘reacting in a harmful or inappropriate way’ – ‘not coping’ isn’t just ‘acting out’ (i.e. displacing our pain by some kind of behaviour). Actually, ‘acting out’ or ‘displacing’ is a form of coping with mental pain or distress. It’s a strategy. Reacting (or ‘freaking out’) is how we do try to cope, by refusing to be present with the pain and ‘acting it out’ instead. This is a very basic coping strategy – the most basic of them all. It’s either this or we batten down the hatch and repress everything for all we’re worth…

 

‘Coping’ – as we have said -essentially means gaining control of our situation such that it stays within certain tolerances, certain predetermined parameters. This is such a normal idea to us that we never question it; we apply it across the board, even when it’s not the helpful thing to do. There are all sorts of processes that we do need to control in this way – cooking food, for example, so that it isn’t undercooked on the one hand or overcooked on the other. Physiologically speaking, we need to make sure we stay within certain parameters – we need to stay between being too hot and being too cold, we have to eat enough but not too much, et cetera. If we are bleeding, then we have to make sure that we staunch the wound and don’t bleed too much.

 

When it comes to feelings however then the same doesn’t apply – to try to keep ourselves within specific parameters with regard to emotions, with regard to how we feel, isn’t a helpful approach at all. We can very easily imagine that we ought to keep ‘the way that we feel’ within a certain normative range, so that the feeling in question is a ‘normal’ one, but when we try to do this we create this whole perception that ‘we need to cope’, that it is a very bad thing (unspecified as to exactly why) if we fail to stay ‘in control’, where ‘coping’ (or ‘staying in control’) means preventing ourselves from feeling the way that we actually are feeling. We have, without consciously realising it, set limits for ourselves in terms of how we supposed to feel and because these self-imposed limits don’t tally with reality, we’ve put ourselves in a very tight spot indeed. We actually feel that we are ‘cracking up’ when this happens – this is exactly what the phrase ‘cracking up’ means, it means going beyond our self-imposed arbitrary limits.

 

The experience of being on the edge of ‘cracking up’ (or ‘being on the edge of not coping’ when not coping is a very bad thing)  is something that we have created for ourselves by trying not to crack up – we ourselves have imposed these limits on ourselves and they are limits that don’t naturally exist. It feels very bad indeed when we feel that we are on the edge of not being able to cope, but ‘coping’ (or ‘managing’) is not a helpful idea to bring into our situation. ‘Coping’, as we have said, means ‘controlling what’s going on’ and ‘controlling what is going on’ very quickly turns into ‘trying to make what is happening not be happening’! When it comes to mental health, trying to make what is happening not be happening is definitely Number One on the list of unhelpful things to do! This doesn’t mean that we don’t all do it of course but – at the same time – it’s the most punishing situation we could ever put ourselves in. We’ve have given ourselves a task that can never be carried out (it can never be carried out since no one can make ‘what is happening not be happening’) and at the same time we have said that it is imperative that we succeed at it. What a thing this is to do to ourselves!

 

What confuses things even more is this talk of ‘managing emotions’ that we hear so often about in recent times. When we hear this phrase then of course we are very likely to think that we should be controlling how we feel, and keeping our emotions within ‘safe’ or ‘appropriate’ boundaries. There is definitely a lot of scope for confusion here because no one should be led to believe that anything we experience – emotion-wise – is ‘wrong’ and needs to be controlled. There is no dial within us that can, like a thermostat, be adjusted to keep the emotional temperature from getting either too hot or too cold. There’s no way for us to change the way we feel, and yet here we are being told that this is our responsibility, that this is exactly what we should be doing

 

The confusion comes about because we are talking about two very different things – when we talk about ‘managing emotions’ what we actually mean is that we should refrain from ‘acting-out’ our emotions in ways that are harmful either to ourselves or to others. Strategies are sought to prevent these unhelpful reactions, therefore. The problem is however that we automatically jump to the conclusion that the way to do this is to quieten down the feeling/emotion so that it is no longer so intense. We assume that we have to ‘turn the dial down’ with regard to the strength of the emotion or feeling, and that is what ‘coping’ or ‘self-soothing’ strategies are all about. But we really have jumped to an unwarranted conclusion here because it’s quite possible to feel the emotion without either acting it out either towards oneself or to others. Very oddly, it seems that we just have no interest at all in exploring this possibility!

 

Feeling an emotion is an art not a science or technology, and this is the reason why we are not interested in it. If it were a technology we could ‘roll it out’; we could standardise and regulate it and teach therapists how to facilitate it. We can’t do this with an art however – we can’t standardise an art and ‘roll it out’ as a generic, ‘one-size-fits-all’ therapy. The thing about an art is that it is individual; the thing about an art is that is going to be learnt in a different way for each person and this is hugely inconvenient to us as a rational (or control-based) culture. The therapists themselves would have to ‘master the art’ and even then it’s not something that we can teach as such. There are no rules, no principles that we can point out; it isn’t a system, and as Bruce Lee says, how can you teach something that isn’t a system?

 

We can teach ways of not feeling emotions or ways of repressing them of course. For this, strategies exist. For feeling the emotion, just as it is, there are no strategies. There are no strategies for this any more than there are strategies for ‘living life’ or ‘telling the truth’ or ‘relating authentically to other human beings’! For all the most important things, there are no strategies. It’s not that easy! All the things that we can teach people to do are very trivial indeed and it is a mark of our remarkably un-psychologically minded culture that we think we can ‘teach mental health’. To teach mental health is to teach someone how to live life and this is one thing that just can’t be done. We can programme people for sure, we can condition them or train them or brainwash them, but we can’t teach them how to live life. We don’t know how to do that ourselves, anyway! We would have to teach ourselves first and we can’t do that because we don’t know how. Who can teach us to be authentically ourselves? Who can teach us how to be present, in this utterly unique situation? All we can do is teach people is how not to be here, how to ‘be here in a conditioned (or inauthentic) way’, and this is therefore exactly what we do teach people! We brainwash people, we condition them, we ‘train their minds’. To call this a ‘therapy’ is however a bit rich…

 

 

 

 

 

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